A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods

Volume 1. No. 1. Winter 2006/07
ISSN 1752-6388

The Slapstick Mystics with Sticks and Other Words: Joanne Tatham in conversation with Susannah Thompson

Wednesday 13th September 2006, Glasgow School of Art

HK, 2001

Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan are Glasgow-based artists who have worked collaboratively since 1995. They are perhaps known primarily for monumental sculptural works and installations such as HK (Tramway, Glasgow, 2001), The Glamour (2000, Transmission, Glasgow) A Routine Sequence of External Actions (‘Selective Memory’, The Scottish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2005) and Rhetoric Works and Vanity Works and Other Works (Newhailes, 2006). Along with these works, Tatham and O’Sullivan’s expansive practice also encompasses creative writing as an important element of the visual art work they produce. Indeed, their practice as a whole invites many parallels with the structures, systems and strategies of language. The writing they have produced has functioned variously as an integrated component of their practice, as an additional, parallel activity and as stand-alone texts for other artists. Both Tatham and O’Sullivan have written collaboratively and as single authors. In this interview, Joanne Tatham discusses the place of creative and critical writing within works she has made with Tom O’Sullivan as well as the writing she has done for other artists. Through a discussion of particular works, the interview attempts to address the way in which words, language and writing function in the context of contemporary art practice and also seeks to investigate the role and position of creative writing as part of practice-based research.

Joanne Tatham graduated from the MFA at Glasgow School of Art and has completed a practice-based PhD, Heroin Kills: Context and Meaning in Contemporary Art Practice at the University of Leeds, 2004. Tatham and O’Sullivan are currently Research Fellows at Grays School of Art, Aberdeen

Susannah Thompson: Your visual art is very much in the foreground in terms of your practice. I wondered if you could say some more about your decision to begin writing as a parallel to your work or as a part of your practice. Can you tell me how it began and what the motivation was to begin writing?

Joanne Tatham: I think it goes back to the time that I started to develop a practice as an artist which was while I was doing an MFA at Glasgow [School of Art]. A lot of the work I was doing was very specifically concerned with language. In particular I was very interested in working with texts which were found texts so a number of works I was doing at the time were taking books and actually somehow reacting or reworking them or putting them into the first person. I think that was quite an important experience in a way because it allowed that possibility of text becoming the art work and it allowed me to have a slightly different relationship to words than the conventional place words had taken in my education up to that point. In that context, they were things that accompanied an art work – they surrounded an artwork. At that time words as part of a title were something that was a very important space within the construction of an art work and how it functioned out in the world. Again, there was a space in which words were found or manipulated or positioned to establish a particular meaning or direction. The writing that I initially wrote as an artist was about trying to forget about logic in a way and about trying to move forward creatively and develop writing that was more skilful or crafted. So there was an interim period where I was actually trying to learn how to use words in the way that I felt was useful or appropriate.

ST: Has that continued in your work? It certainly seems, especially in terms of what you were saying about titles, to be the most apparent way in which you developed that way of working.

JT: Yes, to go back to when I first started working with Tom, the first collaboration we did was a work in which the title was I Speak to the Sea and the Sea Speaks Back to Me, I Speak to the River and the River Speaks back to Me. Both of us felt it was very important to have a long narrative title that occupied a space which paralleled that of the art work. The art work itself in some ways was about adopting an almost ridiculously romantic position. There were portraits of us both in over the top landscapes and the title was trying to mirror the slightly ‘over the top’ quality of the landscape. That mirrored approach to titles has continued through the practice. The complexities of what you can actually do with those words that go with the work is something we’ve tried to develop and consider further

ST: To come back to something you’ve already mentioned, you’re known now for your collaborative work with Tom O’Sullivan but a lot of the writing that I’ve read is under your name alone. What are the differences between your approach to writing and art?

JT: It’s something that myself and Tom are still trying to establish. What are the parameters of the collaboration? I think for us the collaboration has always been about a very generous kind of inclusivity, so that’s allowed us to have quite an expansive practice. We have done some of the written works under the name of the collaboration. One of us might have written them and sometimes we’ve written them together but its very important that it’s Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan who actually have the named authorship of that piece. So the title of Slapstick Mystics with Sticks, the novella and the play, were joint authored even though unfortunately it came to be known, probably through me and Tom not keeping our mouths shut, that I wrote the novella - sometimes these things get out. [Laughs]

ST: Yes, that’s something I was aware of. Your name wasn’t on the novella yet I knew somehow that you’d written it, even though it was part of a collaborative work, or one element of a collaborative work…

The Slapstick Mystics with Sticks (novella), 2002

JT: I can’t really remember who wrote a lot of the texts we’ve produced to be honest. With The Grid, for example, I know I was involved in writing it to some extent and its possible I wrote all of it. I think its interesting within a collaborative situation where who did something doesn’t really matter because it’s the decision to put something out into the world that is the important part rather than who actually ‘did’ the work in the traditional sense. Recently I’ve been trying to make the separation between the collaborative writing and the writing that I've done myself. The writing that I've done under my own name is something that circulates around the PhD that I did and this is a slightly retrospective re-framing of that particular body of work. It is allowing me to think of the writing as a useful and productive project in its own right and not something that infringes on the terms by which me and Tom collaborate. So many of the pieces I’ve done, for example the piece for Alan Michael, very much grew out of the research and the things that I did while I was doing the PhD. I was trying to follow through ideas about how to write about art, rather than about how to position a piece of writing as an art work.

ST: What you’ve said reminds me of the introduction to Charles Harrison’s book on Conceptual Art and Painting where he was discussing the distinction between artists who write literature and ‘artist’s writing’. Do you have any affinity with an approach like that of Art and Language who, as conceptual artists, have employed writing as part of their practice?

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JT: I don’t know. I feel that Tom could add to this as he was taught by Terry Atkinson and I was technically supervised by him for my PhD. In a very general sense all these practices act as models and as possibilities, but I never really felt an affinity with that way of working. There’s a difference in the way Art and Language saw words and the authority they gave to words whereas in much of the writing that exists within our collaboration words are used as you might use a scrap of paper that you found. To some extent that is a disingenuous thing to say because words are so loaded with reference and meaning. When I think about the background to our practice I’m really thinking very specifically about working alongside particular artists in Glasgow and the way they’ve used words, materials and things they find around them to make art. Of course this isn’t a tradition or a moment exclusive to art in Glasgow in the last 15 years – to suggest that would be absolutely ridiculous …

ST: But they would be more of an influence than the approach taken by Art and Language?

JT: Yes.

ST: That brings me to some of the debates surrounding poststructuralist theory and the idea of using words as found objects. A lot of your work, particularly your more recent work, seems to be about quotation – quoting yourself, being self-referential and making works that refer back to earlier works or recomposing earlier works. Do you feel that you use language in a similar way?

JT: Yes, it would definitely function in a similar manner and I suppose as part of that quotation we have ‘word-works’. The process of re-using and re-framing particular works which are comprised of words has been quite an important strategy for us in terms of trying to disrupt how an art work can be interpreted and the expectations that surround the interpretation once words become involved. Something like Heroin Kills, or HK as its correctly titled, is a piece that very obviously tries to undermine its own specific interpretation but simultaneously re-affirm the specific interpretation through strategies such as the Tramway publication of interviews. But something like Slapstick Mystics was always about trying to have something which existed in both as a novella and a sculpture simultaneously and trying to create almost two possible ways of accessing a work. So you might interpret it in a literary way and actually read it in some sense as a specific allegory about interpretation but at the same time you might just understand it as a positioned set of found words - as a genre piece in a way. Trying to do both of those together seems a lot to expect but it was something we really wanted to try.

ST: Some of the work seems to be ironic and earnest, romantic and rational simultaneously, that there were these oppositions happening, but neither one cancels the other out. Could you expand on this?

JT: Yes, again I think it comes down to something quite fundamental about why I’ve chosen to use creative forms to write about art is because of the failure of the more conventional applications of words to describe art accurately. It always seems that that its easier than talking or writing an essay – certainly for me, with my limits as a writer, to avoid those dichotomies that will label something as this or that. There’s something peculiarly unsatisfactory about words and the conventions that we’re having to deal with now in that they only allow something to happen before something else happens. The great thing always with an art work is its ability to occur simultaneously in many different spaces at the same time, to be many things equally and exactly. I think somehow trying to negotiate that within our practice and writing around other sorts of practices is a result of my frustration with the limits of words for me. I think there are people who write really well about art but I think to do that in a more conventional, academic format is hard. It’s not as though people can’t achieve that but it almost predetermines the way you’re going to think about something really.

ST: … and the way you’re expected to fulfil certain criteria, build an argument or work in a formal way. Coming back to the question, I wanted to ask you about the different forms and styles of your writing. The text for Sophie Macpherson for the Greyscale/CMYK (Tramway, 2002) catalogue, which took the form of a poetic, literary letter, is very different to the coarse, conversational language and stream-of-consciousness style used for Alan Michael’s catalogue text1, while The Grid reads almost as a manifesto. Could you say something about why you’ve adopted these very stylised or opaque styles? Are you self-consciously attempting to pastiche established literary forms?

JT: To me these different forms, these genres seem to offer a vehicle through which you can experiment. I suppose it goes back to what I was saying about this idea of words being things that we find. In a sense I find a collection of words and then use them but I wouldn’t think about it quite as specifically as a pastiche – it’s not part of the process that I would actively, consciously seek out particular texts to use as a template, though there are pieces which have done that. I wrote a piece that was never published quite a few years ago which was quite obviously a skit based on Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis. The piece I wrote about Alan Michael’s work came from thinking very hard about Alan’s work. Again, I don’t want to be disingenuous about that but it was about taking a visual clue that seemed quite absurd. I wrote it at the time Alan was doing quite a lot of the shoe paintings and I was trying to find a hint, a referent, that would be a gross misinterpretation of what Alan’s work is about. There seemed to be something about thinking about the shoes and trying to tell a story about shoes that got me onto the idea of tramps and then straight away I was into a realm where I had so much to plunder. The first place I probably went to was back to a text Tom had been reading – a Beckett piece – I can’t remember what it is – and one evening he almost bet me to see if I could actually read this huge rambling monologue within Beckett - I think I managed to read for about 45 minutes. It was incredibly enjoyable – there’s something about that process of reading something out and absorbing the rhythm and that encourages you to try and absorb it and spit it out but obviously what happens is that it comes out as something quite different. I also spent a lot of time researching jokes and the traditions of everyday vernacular and the use of language and anecdote.

1. Download Dum-diddle-dum-dum, dum-dum as a PDF

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